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Interview with an Alum – Maia Gummer and ‘Leaning In’

By Joe O'Brien, on 22 September 2021

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Interview with Maia Gummer, UCL alum. Written by Sue-Zhen Yong, Work Related Learning Officer at UCL Careers.

Ever wondered what it’s like working at a start-up? To this day, more and more start-ups are starting to recognise the intrinsic value hiring students and graduates can bring to their businesses. That said, the world of start-ups can seem like unfamiliar territory to students.

Meet UCL alumnus Maia Gummer – Maia began her BSc in Human Sciences at UCL in 2016 before pursuing an MSc in Space Physiology and Health. During her time at university, she was a scientific contributor for a number of student newspapers, worked abroad, served the RAF as a volunteer reserve, and co-founded a life science research team that has gone on to present their work internationally. After graduation she joined Jumpstart, the UK’s only start-up graduate programme and started working at Quell as the first employee, a fitness gaming company who recently celebrated their one year anniversary!

We spoke to Maia about how her time at UCL has shaped her career trajectory along with a glimpse into what it’s like working at a start-up and top tips for securing a job at a start-up.

  1. What does your career path look like? What motivated you to pursue this line of work? How did you get from UCL to where you are today?

Studying Human Sciences at UCL tapped into my real love for learning new things and enabled me to develop a broad skill set, exposing me to a wide variety of disciplines—life sciences, politics, philosophy, and even architecture! The interdisciplinary nature helped me become increasingly agile and adaptable, where I had to show initiative, pick things up quickly, think critically, and become comfortable with ambiguity.

After finishing my studies, I joined a start-up graduate scheme at Jumpstart that trained me up and helped me land my current job at Quell! Start-ups were one of the few career options where every day looked different, and I could draw from the skills I developed at UCL and learn from true innovators, in a fast-paced environment that challenges me to solve interesting problems every day.

At Quell, it’s been incredibly gratifying to see your efforts have a meaningful impact on the business. Like every company, we face our fair share of challenges, but each time we overcome something, it’s celebrated across the board. Everyone feels its impact. Equally, the reverse is true. It’s difficult to keep all areas of the business moving forward with the same momentum, and challenges are shouldered by everyone.

2. Did you engage with the services or events delivered by UCL Careers during your time here?

I didn’t actually engage with UCL Careers until my final year! I had no idea where I saw myself after graduation, especially since Human Sciences is an interdisciplinary degree, and each student takes a vastly different path after university. It wasn’t until I attended a careers seminar in my third year that I realised how many options I had. A generalist skillset was shown to be a strength, even in a specialist world, so I began to look at careers where I could wear many hats.

3. What does a normal working day at Quell look like for you?

Each day is different. Currently, I’m taking lead on insight generation—planning and executing our first-ever user test. This involves creating and validating a testing protocol, acquiring subjects and researchers, and liaising with different stakeholders before giving the green light to begin. I’ve also been able to use my scientific background, specifically my MSc in Physiology, to advise on exercise best practices in design. I develop and deliver the tests that validate the product and find ways to endorse our work through third parties, such as health charities and scientific advisors.

4. What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your career so far?

If you’re asked to take on an unfamiliar task, lean in to the opportunity. I’ve doubted my ability and experience in the past, but I’ve realised how much more you learn from your mistakes than your wins. It’s a steep learning curve, but you’ll gain valuable experience in a shockingly short amount of time.

5. How have you found working in a start-up/SME during the pandemic? What are currently the most topical issues of your industry? How do you see this growing in the future?

It’s been a mixed bag! On the one hand, I was able to knuckle down, bond with the team, and adjust to working life with minimal distractions. On the other hand, the volatile state of global affairs heightened the uncertainty you already face every day in a start-up.

That said, I’m fortunate enough to be working in an industry that has thrived during the pandemic, and if the predictions come to be true, then this continued growth will be sustainable. Gyms, team sports, and hospital visits came to an abrupt halt in a year where health and fitness became more important to us than ever. HealthTech and FitTech became the answer for many people, and the companies in the sector flourished as a result.

6. And finally, what advice would you give to students and recent graduates who are looking to move into your area of work?

Take time at university to really understand the way that you think, learn, and work as well as your strengths and weaknesses – start-ups offer a diversity of thought and there’s a role for everyone. Also, gain experience outside of your studies that demonstrates your proactivity and ability to overcome challenges. In my experience, those are the two most important qualities that you’ll need to work in a start-up.

Interested in learning more about getting a job at a start-up? UCL Careers are hosting an Industry Update Session with Jumpstart on Thursday 7 October, 18:00 – 19:00. Register your spot to learn first-hand from the people running UK’s only start-up graduate programme on relevant skills and knowledge you’ll need to gain to land a job at a start-up and the general sector trends to watch out for.

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